When I went down to Alec Clegg theatre last night, I wasn’t expecting to be showered in fragments of mashed potato, see a character being groped by an immobilised geriatric, or feel so festive over a month away from Christmas. Rules for Living provided this all in abundance, wrapped in tinsel and brimming with Christmas-inflected animosity.

Rules for Living takes place on one disastrous Christmas day. The bubbly (and at times, irritating) Carrie is nervous to spend Christmas with her boyfriend Matthew’s family, who is in love with his goading brother Adam’s fiancée, the strung-out alcoholic Sheena. To make things worse, Matthew and Adam’s mother, Edith, is on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and their father has suffered a stroke, meaning he can only mumble words relating to years gone by.

But it doesn’t end there. Each character has a ‘rule’ which they must abide by, which is projected above the stage for the audience to see. For example, Matthew must sit down in order to lie, and then has to sit down and eat in order to lie, and then cannot stop until he receives a compliment. With the others characters too having to abide by various ludicrous rules, the result is a frenzied, comic mess.

Directors Jess Moncur and Georgina Wormald succeeded in controlling the descent into chaos well, with each character becoming increasingly hysterical, leading to chunks of yorkshire pudding and stray sprouts flying into the laps of bemused audience members. Although the small stage could have felt crowded in scenes where all characters were on stage, the clearly well-rehearsed and intricate movements of characters made it seem fluid and seamless. However, I feel that there were certain moments where the ‘rules’ could have been exploited more. It isn’t made particularly clear to the audience whether or not the characters were aware of their own rules, which could have perhaps been made more clear to help with the comedy and cohesiveness of the play – there were a few moments where jokes fell flat and comedic opportunities were missed. Zac Harvey-Wright as Adam, for example, had to talk in an accent as his rule, but it was difficult to differentiate when he was talking in an accent or not; his accent kept changing each time, with many times it being very similar to his ‘normal’ voice. The character development of Adam, however, was well played, and his interactions with Sophie Botham as the wonderfully sarcastic Sheena were particularly heartfelt. One ‘rule’ for the character of Carrie, played by Evie Murphy-King, was that she had to dance and tell jokes until she got a laugh – she never did dance properly though, and if this had been attacked with more enthusiasm, it would have easily reeled in more laughs.

On the whole, Lily Moult as Edith undoubtedly gave the standout performance. Her perfect comedic timing and mastery of the role was incredible to witness, and she had the audience in stitches as the neurotic and befuddled mother-hen. Edith’s ‘rules’ were to clean and self-medicate in order to relieve stress, and so even when the focus wasn’t on her she was still bringing in laughs as she polished a Christmas cracker or tried to steal her husband’s painkillers – she never fell out of character. Her pensioner husband, Francis, was executed brilliantly by Joseph Callaghan; his mannerisms as a muddled and grumpy ‘sex-pest’ was met with raucous laughter by the audience and although without a full line of dialogue spoken; his minute mannerisms and attention to detail meant that he never faded into the background.

The dysfunctional duo of Matthew and Carrie was played by Louis Cruzat and Evie Murphy-King, and although there was a slight lack of connection between the two characters, individually they shone, with Cruzat being the one to exploit his ‘rule’ the most for comedic effect as he stuffed his face helplessly with mince pies; Murphy-King succeeded in her role as being a ditsy loose cannon.

Congratulations are in order for Producers Gabi Thomas and Anna Yonish; not only do they probably have a lot of mashed potato to scrape off of the floor after each show, but the set, which could have overcrowded the small stage, was constructed skilfully. No detail was ignored in terms of props, lighting and sound, and the play’s game-show aesthetic was cohesive and effective.

On the whole, the play was enormous fun, and the ‘dark’ elements it contained, with allusions to cognitive behavioural therapy, were skilfully crafted into the comedy, making it funny without allowing it to morph into a farce. Moncur and Wormald did an excellent job with Sam Holcroft’s most recent play, and I’m sure the following two nights will be sold-out just like opening night.

Originally posted on The Gryphon

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